Sunday, October 10, 2010

In Defense of Mark Zuckerberg

I finally got to see The Social Network, the new movie about the founding of Facebook. The movie is set during my first year teaching at Harvard, and in fact there is a scene where I'm shown teaching the Operating Systems course (in a commanding performance by Brian Palermo -- my next choice was Brad Pitt, but I'm thrilled that Brian was available for the role). The scene even shows my actual lecture notes on virtual memory. Of course, the content of the scene is completely fictional -- Mark Zuckerberg never stormed out of my class (and I wouldn't have humiliated him for it if he had) -- although the bored, glazed-over look of the students in the scene was pretty much accurate.

It's a great movie, and very entertaining, but there are two big misconceptions that I'd like to clear up. The first is that the movie inaccurately portrays Harvard as a place full of snobby, rich kids who wear ties and carry around an inflated sense of entitlement. Of course, my view (from the perspective of a Computer Science faculty member) might be somewhat skewed, but I've never seen this in my seven years of teaching here. Harvard students come from pretty diverse backgrounds and are creative, funny, and outgoing. I've had students from all corners of the world and walks of life in my classes, and I learn more from them than they'll ever learn from me -- the best part of my job is getting to know them. I've only seen one student here wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches, and I'm pretty sure he was being ironic.

The second big problem with the movie is its portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg. He comes across in the film as an enormous asshole, tortured by the breakup with his girlfriend and inability to get into the Harvard Final Clubs. This is an unfair characterization and not at all the Mark Zuckerberg that I know. The movie did a good job at capturing how Mark speaks (and especially how he dresses), but he's nowhere near the back-stabbing, ladder-climbing jerk he's made out to be in the film. He's actually an incredibly nice guy, super smart, and needless to say very technically capable. If anything, I think Mark was swept up by forces that were bigger and more powerful than anyone could have expected when the Facebook was first launched. No doubt he made some mistakes along the way, but it's too bad that the movie vilifies him so. (Honestly, when I first heard there was a movie coming out about Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg as the main character, I couldn't believe it -- the quiet, goofy, somewhat awkward Mark that I know hardly sounded like a winning formula for a big-budget Hollywood film.)

The take-away from the movie is clear: nerds win. Ideas are cheap and don't mean squat if you don't know how to execute on them. To have an impact you need both the vision and the technical chops, as well as the tenacity to make something real.  Mark was able to do all of those things, and I think he deserves every bit of success that comes his way. As I've blogged about before, I once tried to talk Mark out of starting Facebook -- and good thing he never listened to me. The world would be a very different (and a lot less fun, in my opinion) place if he had.


  1. I didn't think it was extremely negative on Zuckerberg. His character comes as cross as extremely smart and nerdy and incapable of interacting in the normal way, but not particularly evil.

  2. "Ideas are cheap and don't mean squat if you don't know how to execute on them."

    While this is a nice romantic notion, and certainly may be good for CS enrollment, I seriously doubt Facebook's success had much to do with technical ability. Zuckerberg may be a wiz for all I know, but he didn't need any wizardry to hack up Facebook.

    Don't tell me the 7 years worth of social networking sites that came before Facebook (see didn't make it because they had problems putting together a basic website.

    It was something else that tipped the scales. The movie makes it sound like it could have been the popularity of the first few users that did it. Maybe that's it - I would have loved to see more about what really set it apart in an already quite crowded field.

  3. I read an interesting article talking about how reaction to the film is really bimodal: some see it as positive on Mark, due to his achievement, while others see it as negative on Mark, due to how he treats others. What's interesting is the modality falls greatly along age lines: younger people see it positively, while older people see it negatively.

  4. "Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest." I think this quote applies pretty well to Facebook. They kept their interface nice and clean when others didn't. They also start sharing their data in ways that nobody else wanted to do at that time. They payed attention to their users and keep making sharing and communication easier. And when they made mistakes they worked hard to correct them. I think they deserve their success. :-)

  5. Loved the movie, partly because the writing was fantastic, partly because it was also my first year at Harvard and it brought back a lot of memories. I remember my roommates and I spending hours looking through the hardcover Facebook they gave to each freshman, so when the site first appeared we thought it was the most brilliant thing in the world. I completely agree that ideas are cheap. A lot of people on campus thought the idea of a web-based Facebook would have been cool. Mark actually went and executed it, creating something with a clean and simple interface, and made it all the more appealing because of its exclusivity. What's more important is an understanding of why a good idea could be great. That, coupled with technical ability and tenacity makes a killer combo.

    As for the portrayal of Mark … I don't know him personally so can't speak to how accurate the movie version was. The friends I went to see the film with thought he came across as a jerk, but I disagree. The character was very Sorkin-esque: cocky, exceptionally brilliant, and very human. Anyway, the movie was great, casting did a great job, and nerds rule!

  6. This is the article Phil is talking about:

    FWIW I didn't consider Zuckerberg's portrayal in the movie to be particularly negative. He was certainly a much more sympathetic character than the Winkelvosses or Divya Narendra or Sean Parker.

  7. Jakob - I think you missed my point. In the film, none of the people suing Mark had the ability to build Facebook themselves. My claim is that it takes more than an idea, but also technical ability, to make something like this happen. Bill Gates founded Microsoft. Larry and Sergey founded Google. These guys were hackers, not businesspeople.

    I think a lot of factors played into Facebook's success, and they were all very subtle. The original version of Facebook was a mess, technically -- all implemented in PHP and extremely clunky on the back end. But they were smart to focus it on an audience that could really use such a site -- college students -- and to seed it with tightly-connected cliques by only opening it up to a few colleges at a time. And I agree with Razvan that the interface had a lot to do with it too. Recall that at one point Friendster was so slow as to be unusable. Finally, I think that the News Feed clinched it -- the only reason to keep logging back into Facebook is to see what your friends are up to. Otherwise you set up your profile once and it goes stale.

    Phil - maybe you're right about the age thing, but I saw it as a negative portrayal because I know Mark personally, and that wasn't Mark in the movie.

  8. Of course you know that if they made it at all realistic, it wouldn't be much of a movie.

    They had to put in TEH DRAMA!

  9. I think that if he would't have started facebook the way he did....another network would have taken over the world.... when Mark started facebook there were already other social networks but they were desorganized and open to everybody...Mark made facebook with that "something" good enough to make people to want to join facebook ...and he went to the next step of expanding to the world...that makes him HUGE.

  10. I thought those lecture notes looked familiar!

  11. Was the character portraying you personally (by name) or as the OS professor? That is awesome either way :-D

    Anyway, I agree with you and Jakob. Certainly there was nothing new technically in the original Facebook idea, but then again, they implemented it and went with it, and there is a lot to be said for that. I certainly passed up many ideas because I didn't think they were challenging technically, but then again, I did not change the world .... yet :-P

  12. Ideas are cheap and don't mean squat if you don't know how to execute on them. To have an impact you need both the vision and the technical chops, as well as the tenacity to make something real.

    In the film, none of the people suing Mark had the ability to build Facebook themselves. My claim is that it takes more than an idea, but also technical ability, to make something like this happen.

    Ideas may be cheap, but that does not make it acceptable to steal them, if that is what he did (I honestly have no idea, and neither does anyone but a handful of people). You cannot take a good idea from someone else and then after the fact declare that ideas are cheap and therefore only the one who implemented the idea deserves credit. It is like stealing a winning lottery ticket and then claiming that only you had a car to drive to the store to cash it. Not to mention that you only have the ticket because the victim approached you to offer a cut of the winnings in exchange for a ride to the store.

    In fact, this argument that ideas are cheap is contradictory to your (valid) statements from your earlier article, which suggest that Facebook's dominance is due to the specific ideas that set it apart from the other dozens of existing social networking sites. Plenty of heroic nerds poured coding time into those other sites, but the underlying ideas weren't strong enough to take off like Facebook did. If some of the ideas that made Facebook successful came from the people who made a verbal deal with Zuckerberg, then he is a thief. Of course, nobody but a handful of people knows the whole truth. It could be the accusers who are the dishonest ones. But it is insanity to suggest that Zuckerberg's coding skills automatically exonerate him of charges of intellectual theft. They certainly do not exonerate him from the provable dishonesty he displayed by using Facebook failed password attempts to access other peoples' email. To claim otherwise is social darwinism at its worst.

    Nerds win; this is true. Their moral character determines whether they win in the style of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, or whether they win in the style of Enron (also known as "The Smartest Guys in the Room"). This is why Buffett said,

    Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don't have the first, the other two will kill you. You think about it; it's true. If you hire somebody without the first, you really want them to be dumb and lazy.

    You are a professor at Harvard. I am sure that most of your students, when not on campus, are accustomed to being the smartest person in the room, and are well aware of the power they wield because of this. They don't need to hear from you that their intelligence is an axe to be swung against those without their level of intelligence. They need to hear that their intelligence is a debt they have incurred to the society whose rules and regulations make their intelligence so useful and profitable. They need to hear that paying back this debt is the most honorable way to live their relatively pampered lives. This could be the most important lesson that Harvard offers.

  13. A great post and very informative. The movie hasn't come out in South Africa yet but when it does I'll be sure to go and see it immediately.

  14. Anonymous - these are very insightful comments.

    I don't know the facts behind the case, other than what was portrayed in the movie, which was largely fiction. My point about "nerds win" was not meant to defend Mark's actions from an ethical or legal perspective; just to say that people with technical capabilities often seem to be in the best position to make a real impact.

    On the other hand, I do think that if Mark thought he was in a position to execute better on the ideas behind Facebook by going it alone, then more power to him. He might have to pay the consequences later (and he did), but in the grand scheme of things a $65M settlement is a small price to pay to make something real. So I would not let a small thing like a contract stop someone from changing the world.

    You're making some strong claims about my personal ethics, an easy thing to do when you don't sign your name. This is my personal blog; I'm not afraid to express my opinions, and of course not everyone has to agree with them. This is, yes, one benefit of being a Harvard professor. And I tend to think that my students know how to think for themselves.

  15. Karen of the other CambridgeOctober 12, 2010 at 4:57 PM

    The film is out in the UK on October 15th, I think. I was only mildly interested in seeing it, but now, I'm champing at the bit. Just one teensy comment, Matt: I'm not sure what a 'tweet jacket' is - something to do with another fashionable website, maybe? :-)

  16. Why, obviously, it's a jacket that fits in 140 characters or less.

  17. Anonymous: It's pretty laughable that you talk about "pampered lives," power, and swinging axes at the less intelligent, in the context of this discussion. Did you notice the background of the Winkelvoses? They, too, were Harvard students (therefore presumably equally intelligent), and were much higher in the social and economic ladder than Zuckerberg. If anyone was the underdog here, it was Zuckerberg.

    Your lottery ticket analogy shows a profound misunderstanding of the history of Facebook. Facebook is what it is today not because of the few ideas Zuckerberg might have chatted about with the Winkelvosses, Divya Narendra, et al. It is what it is because of brilliant decisions and very hard work by Zuckerberg and his employees long after they had left Harvard.

    The ConnectU folks struck me as sore losers who never would have pulled off a company 0.01% as successful as Zuckerberg did. Did they deserve the settlement? Presumably so. But should Zuckerberg be villified in the manner you seem disposed to? I would say most definitely no.

    More generally, I agree with Matt 100% on the issue of vision vs. execution -- forget Facebook, there are *thousands* of companies (tech and otherwise) that came to dominate their niche because of excellent execution, not because they had a unique idea. This is also very true in science--there are always lots of people working in the same general area at the same time (distributed shared memory, user-level networking, peer-to-peer networks, sensor networks, whatever) with many of the same ideas. But it's the ones who can execute excellent research on those ideas who are ultimately successful.

  18. What I find the most interesting is how quickly (3-5 years) Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook reach the tipping point and spread across the WORLD!
    Your very interesting blog reminds me of book - Apprentice to Genius: The Making of a Scientific Dynasty.

  19. The story of facebook really interesting. The brains of facebook Mark Zuckerberg was the youngest billionare on history of Earth. The success of his creation is amazing.

  20. Matt, I will appreciate if you answer my question posted in the previous blog regarding whether PhD is a good option or not.

  21. @Matt welsh:

    "So I would not let a small thing like a contract stop someone from changing the world."

    I wonder if you'd be OK if Harvard said the same about tenure contracts? :)

    The problem with such a cavalier attitude towards contracts is that everybody thinks they are changing the world (particularly when breaking a contract) and ultimately nobody need honor their contracts and we'd all end up living in the wild wild west once again. Based on this one statement alone, one would think you are saying; Mark Zuckerberg is the only one who could have changed the world and therefore, its OK for him to break the contract. And to what extent is it OK to break contracts? CEOs often do the same thinking they are doing the company, the industry, and the world a favor by breaking trust with their shareholders and employees. And some of them get caught.

    Also, did you really know Mark Zuckerberg all that well? Or did he just take your class, one time, and he spoke to you an a few occasions?

  22. If Harvard stopped honoring tenured employment contracts, they would very rapidly stop being such a competitive university.

    I don't think that we're going to agree on the role of contracts in business arrangements, and blanket statements are dangerous things. It depends a lot on the circumstances. In this case, was Mark's contract with the Winklevoss twins worth breaking to make Facebook? I think so, yes.

    I've met Mark enough times to know that the portrayal of him in the movie is not accurate.

  23. Hi Matt,

    I'm teaching a 3rd year hardware systems course and am starting to work through virtual memory. Saw the film last night and wanted to steal / use the VM problem you were using in class, thought the students would enjoy the fact that the movie got most of the technical details right even if some of the drama was injected. Is it one of your exercises or was it invented for the movie? Seemed pretty mainstream as VM problems go but it was complex enough to make the (fabricated) point that Zuk is an evil genius who knows the answer even as he is barely paying attention. Oh if only my students knew the answers when they are barely paying attention.

    Thanks in advance for sharing the problem, if you can.

  24. The problem was invented for the movie and I don't exactly recall what the wording was. In fact the screenwriter made it up and I sent them a tweak when I saw the script. But in general the problem deals with the number of bits needed for each field of the PTE given specifications of the size of the memory, the page size, etc.

  25. It would be nice if you could back up your claim about the first "misconception" with numbers.

  26. i really appreciate your putting up the link for the OS course question !!did you really ask the question and it was mark who answered it unexpectedly and i do know as you have already cleared that mark didnt leave the class :)

  27. I also know Mark personally, as I spent some time with him both before and during the CS91r seminar we took together in early 2004. In my experience--which is directly related to the topic of Facebook's origins--he was as "back-stabbing" (to use your words for legal reasons) as he was portrayed, and more than that, he was actually a lot worse, knowingly and deliberately breaking the law and betraying the trust of numerous people, including me, on several occasions. So while it's great that you had a good relationship with him, keep in mind that you were not his peer as a Harvard professor while he was a Harvard student, nor were you ever his target. I don't know the Winklevosses or Eduardo personally at all and I have questions about their claims, but my own experience is extremely well-documented, my claims have been upheld as valid by at least one federal agency, and Mark's lawyers felt compelled to settle with me for some reason. In other words, I'm not totally crazy.

    Secondly, the statement on your blog that no one else in the movie could have built Facebook is technically true, but only because I opted out of being included in the movie. Ben Mezrich asked for my assistance and promised a role as a main character in his book "The Accidental Billionaires," which I turned down because I did not trust him to get the facts right, so I essentially chose not to exist in the public version of the legend. In reality, under the auspices of a club that Margo Seltzer supervised (feel free to check with her), I did build "The Facebook" in September, 2003, upon which Mark based his work--it's just that few people know about it. But there's no question that Mark did.

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  29. Dear Matt, Thanks for the great post, its hard to believe that the person depicted in the movie is the same person to bring facebook into our global village. Nonetheless movies need dramatization and hype to appeal these days.
    Incidentally, would you have a worked solution of the virtual memory question asked in the movie, or where i can get ,we are unable to crack it!? Cheers


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